Squatting is still Legal, Necessary and Free
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994, does not make it a crime to squat, ‘though it includes three changes in the law which could make squatting more difficult or insecure, unless you plan carefully and are well organised. Myk, from the Advisory Service for Squatters, details these changes and offers some advice to existing and potential squatters.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 80.
Protected Intending Occupiers (PIOs) - New Definition
A PIO is someone who needs to move into a place to live there and who has some right to be there. Before, they had to be either the owner, a leaseholder with at least two years left to run, or a person who had been allocated by a council or a housing association. They had to have a certificate proving their status and you could and still can be nicked for not leaving when shown a certificate and asked to do so. (See Squatters’ Handbook for more details). The law has been widely abused by councils who claim to have allocated new tenants to squats, only to leave them empty.
Now the new law also allows private tenants and leaseholders with more than two years left to run to be PIOs. Since such places are hardly ever squatted, this will have little effect. These new PIOs need a certificate signed by a magistrate.
Protected Intending Occupiers (PIOs) - Violent Evictions
Now comes the nasty bit. Before, anyone who used violence (which includes violence against property) to get into any place where there was a person on the premises opposed to their entry, committed an offence against Section 6, Criminal Law Act 1977, giving squatters some protection. The only exception to this - the only person allowed to break in and chuck out squatters - was the fictional ‘Displaced Residential Occupier’ (DRO). (See Squatters’ Handbook for more details).
Now, a PIO or someone “acting on their behalf’ (like the council) is also able to do this (after they have shown the relevant certificate). Councils which have regularly issued false PIO certificates in the past may now be tempted to back them up with violent evictions. If this happens, it will be vital to make sure they’re in major shit if the PIO turns out to be false (see below) or if they use unreasonable force - assault is still a crime.
To be sure of avoiding this new law, potential squatters will either need to pick a flat which will not be let to a new tenant (eg where the whole block is being cleared) or go for a non-residential building which you can turn into a home. It will become more important than ever for squatters to know the area they want to squat, to do research and to choose squats carefully.
But remember, there is nothing to stop an owner from breaking in to a squat and taking it back if nobody is there. This has been the law since 1978!
Interim Possession Orders (IPOs)
This is the new procedure for much quicker evictions through the courts. They are not as draconian as the government wanted, but will still be a problem.
Unless there is a PIO or DRO, or a squat is left empty, evictions cannot occur without a possession order being made by a court. This will not change, but the new rules will alter the way some possession orders are made.
Under normal proceedings a squatter must get at least five days notice of the hearing, which gives a reasonable chance of being able to go along and fight the case.
Squatters have been effective at this recently, so much so that new government legislation will prevent them from arguing their case until after eviction.
Under the new proceedings squatters may only get 48 hours notice that the owner is taking them to court. It will still be possible to submit an affidavit in defence, and there will still be many defences. Squatters will also be able to answer questions in court, but only if an affidavit has been filed. The bad news is that if an IPO is granted by the court squatters will have just 24 hours to leave the property. Failure to leave the premises, or if the evicted party returns to the property within a year, will mean that an arrestable offence has been committed. If the IPO is granted it will be impossible to appeal (to overturn the order) until after the eviction.
Interim Possession Orders should only be granted if the owner takes the squatter(s) to court within 28 days of discovering that their property is occupied - a tall order for big bureaucracies - so most evictions are still likely to be enforced through the old procedure.
Carry on Squatting
Although we still don’t know how things will work in practice, whether the cops really want to get involved, how quickly the courts will be able to find time for hearings, how willing judges will be to grant IPOs.... we know enough. These new laws will need to be fought every inch of the way.
Essential for an effective fightback will be hard information about how the Act is being used (or abused). Full details of every use, or attempted use, of the new laws should be passed to SQUASH (details below), who are monitoring cases and building up a database.
Individual squatters and households will often be able to avoid the new laws or see off attempts to use them by being aware of the new procedures. What will do the trick more effectively is planning; being prepared and keeping records.
Some advice to existing and potential squatters:
• Don’t just squat anywhere that’s empty because it’s there. Make sure you know your area and its housing politics, or research places carefully before squatting (see Squatters Handbook for ideas).
• Keep a file with all the papers about your squat, including all the mail which was there when you went in or which arrives later.
• Make detailed notes about everything that happens including visits from the owners or police and any information you can get from neighbours. Always include dates, times, names (ask for them!) and police and vehicle numbers. Do it as soon as you can, and always the same day.
• Get advice immediately about any attempt to evict you. Contact Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS - details below). A local law centre, or advice centre may also be able to help. If you qualify for legal aid (you need to be claiming or have very low wages) a solicitor can advise and act for you. But make sure it’s someone who understands the subject.
• As the government have been forced to allow us to attend court, use this right - contact ASS who will have the arguments prepared
• If evicted on the basis of a PIO, keep an eye on the place for evidence of abuse - landlords can be done for lying!
• Read the Squatters’ Handbook - published by ASS. A temporary edition is now available (70p or £1 including postage). Together with information in this article it gives the current position. A new edition will be out very soon.
SQUATTER’S ACTION FOR SECURE HOMES (SQUASH)
- campaign against the anti-squatting laws in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and for decent homes for everyone. All donations and enthusiasm welcome! c/o 2 St Pauls Rd, London N1 2QN. Tel: 0171 226 8938
ADVISORY SERVICE FOR SQUATTERS (ASS)
- legal and practical advice for squatters and homeless people. Publish Squatters’ Handbook. 2 St Pauls Rd, London N1 2QN. Tel: 0171 359 8814. Office open Monday - Friday, 2-6pm.